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The Oldest Bread Ever Found Dates Back 14,400 Years and Predates Agriculture

The discovery suggests that Natufian hunter-gatherers baked bread from wild grains long before it was cultivated from crops.

by Becky Ferreira
Jul 16 2018, 7:00pm

Image: Alexis Pantos

The oldest direct evidence of baked bread in archeological history, dating back an astounding 14,400 years, has been discovered in Jordan, according to research published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This Methuselah of flatbreads was baked by a group of hunter-gatherers called the Natufians in a firepit at Shubayqa 1, an excavation site located about 130 miles northeast of the Jordanian capital of Amman. Its exceptional age is significant because it predates the First Agricultural Revolution by four millennia, suggesting that hunter-gatherers produced bread by harvesting wild cereals.

Baking with these untamed grains may have inspired prehistoric humans to cultivate the earliest farms in history—an innovation at the root of modern civilization.

“The remains are very similar to unleavened flatbreads identified at several Neolithic and Roman sites in Europe and Turkey,” said first author Amaia Arranz Otaegui, a University of Copenhagen archaeobotanist, in a statement. “So we now know that bread-like products were produced long before the development of farming.”

The loaf’s sparse remains were identified as the earliest empirical evidence of bread production with the help of advanced scientific techniques. Lara Gonzalez Carratero, a PhD student at University College London, imaged 24 ashy remnants recovered from Shubayqa 1 using scanning electron microscopy, a far more precise imaging method than traditional optical microscopes.

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This process revealed the signatures of undomesticated ancestors of modern crops—including barley, einkorn, and oat—which had been dehusked, ground, kneaded, and cooked by the Natufians.

While the new study pushes back the timeline of empirically proven bread-baking, previous research suggested humans experimented with proto-flour as early as 30,000 years ago, so bread may have a much more extended history than is currently borne out by concrete evidence. Given this doughy foodstuff’s enormous role in supporting the first sedentary urban settlements, unlocking its past will provide crucial insights into the snack that founded the modern world, and the bygone peoples who seeded it.

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